Student school board member wants more voting rights
Hwang says his votes should count, but parent advocate opposes the idea
David A. Naimon remembers a time when the student member of the Montgomery County school board had no voting rights at all, when the young resident would sit on the board without the power to vote on any real issues.
As the county's first student school board member in 1978, Naimon also recalled a time when the school board president questioned his presence at certain executive sessions and at the board table.
Times have changed, Naimon said, and that is why he supports the recent push by the county school board and some state lawmakers to expand voting rights for student school board members.
"I think my 31 successors have clearly demonstrated that students can handle the job and could vote intelligently on all the issues before the board," Naimon said Monday.
As part of its legislative agenda for the Montgomery County Delegation, the county school board Nov. 10 approved a resolution by student board member Timothy T. Hwang to broaden the voting rights of its student school members.
Since Hwang's resolution was part of a legislative platform for the upcoming General Assembly session, it will have to pass through the legislature in Annapolis before it becomes law.
Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Dist. 14) of Burtonsville has proposed a bill to expand voting rights for the county's student school board member.
"Over the 31 years we've had a student member on the board, they've shown a great ability to be a full member," Kaiser said. "Given that the student member is approved by thousands of people, it's only right that the student member be given more voting rights."
Under current law, the student member is allowed to vote on issues pertaining to collective bargaining, construction and operating budgets, and school boundaries, openings and closings, but the vote does not count.
Under the resolution, the vote of the student school board member would count on all those issues. However, student members would not be able to vote on the suspension or expulsion of school employees so they can't have a say in dismissing an employee at their school.
For Hwang, a 17-year-old senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville whose one-year term ends June 30, counting the vote of the student board member is about a "culture of respect" and the board taking the student member's opinion into account.
"I really think it's a shame that they're not counting [the student member's] opinion," Hwang said. As for expanding voting rights, "it's been a long time, and I think it's a long time coming," he said.
Sebastian Johnson, the school board's 28th student member, said that the student member is capable of making informed decisions on major issues. Although his vote did not count, Johnson said that he made sure he studied the operating budget and the school system's strategic plan.
"Every student board member before and after me has done the same thing," he said. "The more students are in, the better. Whatever my opinion was, it was taken seriously by board members."
But while there is much support for expanded voting rights, others question the wisdom of counting the student member's votes on key matters.
The board of directors of the county teachers union is scheduled to vote today on expanded voting rights, said Doug Prouty, president of the county teachers union.
In prior years, Prouty said, the union has opposed the expanded voting rights because students are elected by their peers, and not by registered voters. Also, he said, if student board members are given voting rights, it could create ties on votes; the board has seven adult members. If a vote ends in a tie, the proposal fails.
Janis Sartucci, a leading member of the Parents Coalition advocacy group, agreed.
Sartucci questioned the student board member's ability to vote independently of their adult peers.
In 2004, Sartucci said, the board voted to charge lab fees to students, and the student member voted in favor of the measure.
"That was a vote against the interests of students," Sartucci said. "We have a pattern of the student board member voting in lock step with the adults."
If the county delegation passes Kaiser's bill, it will be introduced during the General Assembly session.